Networking at Conferences/Events

I’ve explained why you should be attending industry conferences/events and detailed what you can do before you arrive to make the most of your networking opportunities. But what do you do when you get there?

I’m sure for some of you the idea of approaching strangers at a conference or other event is terrifying. I’m a naturally outgoing and talkative person – my mother says even as a toddler I was a “never met a stranger” kind of person. However, even I feel apprehensive sometimes when I attend an event where I don’t know anyone. Which leads me to tip #1…

Take a friend. If possible, convince a friend to attend with you. If you’re a student it’ll probably be easy to find another student with similar interests who will attend the conference or event with you. I’ve bribed friends who didn’t have the slightest interest in the subject matter to attend numerous events with me. Usually the lure of free food and drinks does the trick.

Conference you have to pay to attend or travel great distances for make the friend strategy a little tougher. If this is the case, be on the lookout for someone at your peer level you know through Twitter or other social media who is attending the event. Tell them you’d love to meet up. Then the two of you can take on the event together. I’ve met up with a number of people this way. Another strategy is to look for someone else at the bar who’s alone and approach them.

The bottom line is that you’ll feel more comfortable working the room as a pair. If you’re someone who is less outgoing, invite a friend who is outgoing and might initiate conversation with strangers. This leads me to tip #2…

Start conversations with strangers. I know your mother taught you to never talk to strangers, but that rule doesn’t apply when you’re at an industry event. You’re either going to have to learn to be outgoing or stick by the side of someone who is (for example, that vivacious friend I told you invite in tip #1). You lose virtually all opportunities for networking if you stand in the corner and meet no one new. Although, I’ve found that at many of these events all you have to do is be present and people will approach you, which is why I explained the importance of just showing up.

While I think the ability to interact with strangers is in large part something you’re either born with or not, I also believe that if you want something badly enough you’ll learn new skills or overcome your fears.

Let’s use MLB Winter Meetings as an example, since I’m headed there as I write this post. The hotel bar is so packed at night, I find it hard to believe you can spend any appreciable amount of time in the bar and not meet people. It’s generally wall-to-wall people. You’re going to end up smashed against someone waiting for a drink at the bar or having someone ask to use the empty seat next to you. Random small talk is bound to happen. Someone will engage with you. Meet them halfway and engage back.

At a place like Winter Meetings everyone is hanging out at the hotel bar because they want to socialize. Unless you’re rude, you’re not bothering them. Follow simple rules of etiquette like not interrupting a conversation they’re already engaged in (although it’s acceptable to wait patiently nearby so they notice you), and I can say with confidence virtually anyone there will be happy to meet you.

There are two simple ways to meet people and start a conversation. The first is to look for faces you recognize (a panelist or perhaps someone you follow on Twitter – doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met) or keep an eye out for names you recognize on name tags. Here are some simple examples of first lines:

“Hi, I’m Brandon Smith, a sports marketing student at SMU. I follow you on Twitter and just wanted to say hi.”

“I enjoyed your thoughts on the CBA during your panel this morning. I’m a law student who’s really interested in collective bargaining. My name is Lindsey Allen.”

That’s it. The person may or may not engage in a full conversation with you, but you’ve done everything you can do to try and make a connection. Look for social cues that they no longer want to continue the conversation (short answers and asking nothing of you, looking around the room constantly while you’re talking to them, etc.) and politely excuse yourself. Ask if they have a card and give them yours. The odds of them using it may not be high, but it’s higher than if they never met you and received it. I still have the cards of every student I met at Winter Meetings last year. If I ever needed an intern to research baseball issues, I’d likely go to them first (especially if any of them followed up, which I’ll detail in a later post).

Strategy number two is for meeting complete strangers whose face or name mean nothing to you. Let’s say you’re at the bar waiting for a  drink (assuming you’re of legal age). You’re guaranteed to be standing next to someone else waiting for a drink or someone standing at the bar sipping on their drink while they watch the big screen behind the bar. “Crowded in here tonight, huh?” or “Do you know if the Packers won?” is all you need.

I understand that for some of you this is totally outside of your comfort zone. But, if you want to put yourself in the best position possible to achieve your career goals, you’ll find a way to put the fear aside.

Because I’m so nice, I’m going to give those of you coming to Winter Meetings an opportunity. I’m going to tweet my location and what I’m wearing tonight and tomorrow night. Then all you have to do is look for me in the crowd and come say hi. The ratio of women to men at MLB Winter Meetings is pretty low, so I won’t be that hard to track down. I don’t know what can be easier than an open invitation to come chat with me (and my boyfriend, Chadd Scott, who has spent his entire career in sports talk radio – two for the price of one).

Take notes. I’m about to share with you one of the best tips anyone ever game me. Take notes on the back of people’s business cards so you’ll remember them and your conversation later. If it’s someone you know (a popular broadcaster or someone you follow on Twitter perhaps), then the note can be what you talked about. Maybe you met my friend Maury Brown and he told you he digs Les Paul guitars. Simply write “Les Paul” on the back of his card. Then when you follow up with him down the road (which, as I said before, is coming in a later post) you have something that might trigger his memory of your conversation.

If you’ve met a complete stranger, slightly more detailed notes are required. Last year I met a student I was really impressed by. On the back of his card I wrote, “Tall, blonde hair, interned for Mets.” That was enough that when he contacted me later and I didn’t recognize his name, a quick look at his business card (which you should have after reading this post) reminded me of our conversation.

You’re not always going to have time to do this immediately after the conversation. If you can sneak a second and do it great, otherwise do it as soon as you leave for the night. You may think you’ll remember every detail of the conversation, but when you meet people every night for four or five nights at Winter Meetings or get busy with life and don’t get a chance to follow up with people for weeks, you’ll find value in this exercise.

When you’re able to follow up with people and reference a portion of the conversation you had with them, they’re far more likely to remember you and a personal connection will be born. It’s a nice touch that lets them know they weren’t just one of many people you chatted up at the event.

Watch your alcohol consumption! Just because you’re old enough to drink doesn’t mean you should get loaded to work up the courage to chat with strangers. Once you engage in a conversation with someone you need to make a good impression. Slurred speech and close talking are not ways to do that.

By all means, have a drink if that helps ease your nerves (as long as you’re of age). I’ve never had more than two drinks at a conference or event. I can’t set your personal limit for you, but I urge you to stop before you get a buzz. Making a bad impression could follow you around for the rest of your career.

While I believe networking comes more naturally for some than others, I think the basic skills can be taught and honed or I wouldn’t bother writing these posts. If the idea of going to a conference and striking up conversations with complete strangers terrifies you, I promise you’re not alone. However, if those other shy folks are going and forcing themselves out of their comfort zone, following these steps and building their network and you’re not…guess which one of you is more likely to get a job. As I said in an earlier post, many of these jobs are never posted. They go to someone with a connection.

Don’t believe me? I’ve had three positions in sports media: SportsMoney on Forbes, Comcast Sports Southeast and now ESPN. Not one of them was a result of me answering a job posting. In fact, there was no job posting anywhere for any of those positions. More on how I landed each position to come later. For now, embrace networking.

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